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"HOW OLD IS THIS TREE?" This was the question on the plaque at the base of the tree stump. I wasn't going to let that challenge go unmet so I started to count the rings: 1, 2, 3[horizontal ellipsis] 123, 124,125. That tree was old!!

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The plaque explained that the rings of the tree not only reveal its age, but also the environmental conditions in any given year-the amount of rainfall, for example. Some rings even indicate forest fires. If this old tree could talk, it would sure tell us a lot, I thought. But trees can't talk. They can reflect the past, but they cannot tell us how they felt during certain events or what they learned.


That is not true with people. We have the wonderful capacity to recount our pasts and learn from them. Take, for example, John and Mary, a professional couple from Virginia. I knew both of them had embraced Christianity as adults, so over dinner, I asked them, "How do you see God in your past?"


Mary dreamily responded, "Awesome!!" I was hoping to hear more than one word, so I pried. "No, tell me. When you look back over your life, how can you see that God was at work?"


Mary told me about a college professor who had openly denied the existence of God. That had prompted Mary to toss her fragile faith out the window. Years later, when she was happily married and expecting a baby, she reconsidered God's existence. The miracle of pregnancy opened her heart to God, who had been steadily drawing her to himself.


John explained that, while he hadn't abandoned his faith, he had harbored deep questions about many aspects of religions. God brought people into his life who helped him wrestle with those questions. In time, his faith deepened. Both John and Mary related facts, like the rings on a tree stump, but they also associated the events with the reality of God's working in their lives. They saw God in their past.


We all need to be reassured of our relationship with God from time to time, to run our fingers down the rope of the past to feel the anchor of God's love. The writer of Psalm forty-two demonstrates this well. He was having a bad spell, according to his lament in verse three: "My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'"


But then the psalmist looks to the past. He is reminded of God's past workings. He writes, "These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival" (v.4). Remember means to mark. The psalmist marked a time when he led worship filled with praise. This memory reassured him that he could hope in God. Things would get better.


A few years ago I accepted an offer of my dream job. I was thrilled. Once in the job, however, it didn't take long to encounter significant problems far beyond my ability. I eventually quit that job, my trust in God deeply shaken. Why had he led me into such a mess? Why had I trusted him? Was he tantalizing me with my heart's desire just to make me watch it crumble?


To regain my spiritual footing, I looked back over my life and reviewed specific benchmarks when God had done something significant for me. The pain didn't abate immediately, but I was able to move on, assured that my anchor was secure.


Another reason to look for God in our past is to remember lessons he has taught us. The biblical prophets constantly warned people about their future by reviewing the mistakes of the past.


When I received my first credit card, I charged up a storm. I bought things I never would have considered if I had been spending on a cash-only basis. And then the statement came-and the sharp conviction of the Holy Spirit. It took me eight months to clear that debt!! Even now, years later, when I am tempted to spend beyond my means, I remember the pain of digging out of debt. That past lesson from the Lord continues to affect my present behavior.


What happens when we fail to look for God in our past? Mark's Gospel gives us an example. The disciples were all on hand when Jesus miraculously multiplied the bread and fish to feed a crowd of more than 5,000 people in Mark 6:30-44. Not long after, they watched Jesus feed another crowd of 4,000.


Soon after, Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when the disciples realized they had forgotten to bring enough bread for the journey. Jesus heard their discussion, and I can imagine him shaking his head in amazement. He reminded the disciples of the two miracles they had just been part of: the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of 4,000. Jesus pressed them, "Do you still not understand?" The disciples failed to connect the miracles in the past with their present situation. They failed to see God in their past.


How can we avoid the disciples' tunnel vision? How can we begin to see God in our past? It requires more than a casual stroll down memory lane. Rather, it takes a deliberate three-step process: stop, look and listen. Stop and intentionally explore the past. Look at what the events meant and what you learned. Listen and discern how God was involved in the events.


These steps to bring past memories into focus can be applied in dozens of ways. One method is to create a lifeline. Lifelines trace, in chronological order, the major events and the people who have influenced you. They are easy to construct. You can begin at the present and work back or, as I'll demonstrate, start at your beginning and work forward. Use blank paper, or even better, get a roll of paper. Use different colored markers, and have fun!! Here's how to apply the steps of stop, look and listen to a lifeline.


Our lives are made up of natural seasons. When you begin your lifeline, draw a long line across the paper, and add hash marks to designate the different eras of your life, such as early childhood, school days, teen years, college, early years of marriage, young kids, careers and so on.


Once you have your seasons on the lifeline, add critical events. I focus on four types of events: successes, failures, life changers and painful events. All of these can help you see God in your past.


Here are a few questions that will help you remember critical events.


* What memories make me smile ? List the times and events that made you feel blessed or successful.


* What would I do over again, if I had the chance ? Mistakes are often catalysts for change. Looking at past failures doesn't have to be awful: seeing how we have changed can be rewarding.


* What got my attention so I made a conscious change in my behavior or attitudes? Usually there are only a handful of these experiences in anyone's life. Focusing on them will show you how God was orchestrating events that would help you grow.


* What memories stab my heart? Looking back at painful events takes courage, but if we are willing to do so, we'll discover that deep beliefs in God, life and relationships are forged in the crucible of pain.



The last ingredient in your lifeline is the key people who have had an impact on you either positively of negatively. (To avoid clutter, you may want to start with a fresh timeline for this step.) These sample questions will help you focus on the people God has used in your life.


* Who has made a big difference in my life? List people God has used to bless you. Look at the seasons of your life and ask, "Who was a key person during that era?"


* Who has hurt or disappointed me? Looking at painful relationships in the past is difficult, but we probably learn more than we realize from these.



When I was a new nurse, I worked with an older nurse who had a terrible attitude and complained about everything. I was young and ambitious; she seemed to throw cold water on all my ideas. I dreaded going to work when she was on duty.


Then one night, a critical situation developed on our unit. In my inexperience, I froze. But this older nurse calmly stepped to my side and whispered to me what to do. She coached me through the crisis, and I learned a new lesson about being a good nurse. I was also humbled that I had been so impatient and judgmental. After that, I looked for the good in coworkers. That difficult relationship was the catalyst for several essential life lessons.


You are ready now for the next step. Look at your lifeline-the seasons, the critical events and the key people. To discover what these events and people mean, consider the following questions.


* Why do I remember that?


* What did I learn?


* How did my life change ? These simple questions will draw out the meaning that these memories hold for you.



The preceding questions serve as a link to the third step: seeing God in your past. Romans 8:28 assures us that "all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." All things-the painful events and relationships, the successes and blessings-all things work together. Look once more at your lifeline and ask yourself these questions.


* What part did God have in the season, event, or relationship ?


* What did I learn about him?


* How is my life different?



Last December I was invited to a surprise fiftieth birthday party for a friend I knew years ago. I was delighted and drove 200 miles across frozen, rural highways of Minnesota to join the celebration. With each mile I drove, my mind went back to my days as a nursing student.


I began college in incredible anger and rebellion, deeply cynical toward God and intolerant of Christians. But by my senior year, God had wooed me to himself. By the time I graduated, I was as committed to God as I had been rebellious. That's when I met the friend whose birthday I was about to celebrate. While driving, I had time to examine why and how certain events and people from those days had been so life changing. I soon found myself spontaneously praising God for giving meaning to my rebellion and for drawing me into his family.


Constructing a lifeline always teems with meaning, but sometimes it is especially helpful. If you are going through a hard time and need to be reminded of God's continuous involvement in your life, look back to see how he was always there in your past. You'll be assured that he will be there for you now and in the future, as well.


If you are considering a career change, look back to discern your strengths and the stuations that brought out your best. A friend was at a crossroads in her career and, with the help of a career counselor, reviewed all her work experiences. He instructed her to stop at each memory that was rich with satisfaction. He then guided her to analyze those situations to discern her God-given strengths. With that list in hand, my friend risked a difference career path. Today she is in her niche, relaxed, creative and productive. She loves her job and is a blessing to all around her. The catalyst for this courageous action was the time she spent looking for God in her past jobs.


If you are part of a small group, use this exercise to get to know each other well in a short period of time. Celebrate your discoveries. Have fun!!


To lose sight of our past, and God's involvement in it, is to lose a precious heritage. Take time to examine the tree rings of your life and the evidence they contain of God's unfailing faithfulness.